Creating a company culture that elevates employees’ passions

Nigel Zelcer
Co-Founder and Managing Partner
Jabian Consulting

What if 100% of your staff are encouraged to find their personal passion serving in the community? What’s the value in making this core to your company culture? And is it even attainable?

That’s the status quo at a unique firm, Jabian Consulting, which has its flagship office in Atlanta. So, we sat down with Nigel Zelcer, Jabian’s co-founder and managing partner, to learn how, and more importantly why, they’ve created a culture of generosity.

In founding Jabian, you broke the consulting firm mold, promising that your consultants only work in their home market and have the opportunity to deeply invest in their community instead of classic consulting firms where you work out of remote markets all week. Tell us the origins and how you make it so.

For us, it’s important to keep folks in their market 7-days-a-week and help them make meaningful contributions to their community.

Everyone knows they’re joining Jabian for a career, not a job. And part of what they’re going to do is be part of their community, one way or another. They’re going to be doing something: serving on a board, serving at their school. Whatever it is, they’re going to be part of their community. So, I’m proud to say 100% of our employees are involved.

It’s definitely a culture thing. We’re very clear in our recruiting process. In our career model, obviously doing outstanding client service is primary, but secondarily what you’re going to do in the community is also important to growing your career.

It shouldn’t be dictated. We don’t tell anyone “though shalt give x percent to this one organization.” We don’t think that’s the right way to do it. I’ve seen it done that way and never saw that value.

Instead, we say you need to be involved in the community if you want to be part of Jabian, but I’m not going to dictate how. You need to find your own passions. And I’ll help, but I’m not going to dictate what it is that you should be passionate about.

What I tell managers is allow your people to find their passion. Evaluate them, not on what they’re doing but that they’re doing something meaningful to them. That makes them a whole person.

How do you advise folks go about finding their passion, choosing a cause to support and getting invited to the table to contribute?

Well, everyone’s busy. No one comes and says, “I have too much time on my hands,” so that’s the first thing.

  • Go to an event for an initial read: First, I say, “If you have a passion for something, why don’t you just go to an event.?” I do a lot with Winship Cancer Institute and the Winship 5k, so go do the 5k! What you’re trying to do is determine how organized they are, because if they are all over the place, you’re probably going to run away eventually.
  • Get to know the people: Go meet with the Executive Director or some board members. Get to know them. I like to hang out with people that are nice, hanging out with people who are not so nice is not fun, it’s not where I want to put my time in.
  • Determine what you have to offer to that organization. And don’t think it has to be grandiose, it could be volunteering time to bag sandwiches, or let’s say you’re an accountant, and you put a couple hours into helping them with finance. If you have one hour a week, that’s 52 hours to make a big impact!
  • Join their board: And eventually, if you get so passionate and it’s really working out, go talk to the leaders and discuss with them what it’s like to be on the board.

That’s the way I like to do it versus people saying, “I need to get a board position.” That’s a step in the wrong direction, because I don’t know why you think you deserve or even want a board position.

And you have to write a plan and commit to it. It can’t just be in your head because every week will be next week.

Especially for people who are searching for their thing, I encourage people to get that one first actual achievement. Like help with one fundraiser or help them do a strategy. But if you don’t like that group, move on, but that’s an achievement you’ve made.

Where do you see the value in this strategy, on a day-to-day basis?

When you look at all our stakeholders – the employees, the family community, clients, community and nonprofits — this makes our whole community a better place. And if our community is better and stronger, then our business is rewarded for that because there’s more business to go do.

You can see people grow. I believe growth comes in steps. You can see people take on leadership positions in the community and it’s like they have a new aura, a new light bulb has gone off in their head. It’s not that they’re a different person, but their leadership has really stepped up.

You get another whole network of people who can help influence you and you can help influence them, and you’re centered around a passion.

I don’t put business first. I don’t say “You’re going to be on this board so you can drive business.” I’d much rather have an individual on a board where that board might need some strategy help and that person might ask other colleagues to help them deliver a terrific plan. Now if someone on the board sees that and thinks “I need that in my business,” clearly, we’ll go help that for-profit, because that’s what we do for a living.

How do you introduce new employees to these concepts and reinforce the idea across your culture?

  1. Introduce them to the issues, people, ideas: When someone walks in the door at Jabian as a brand-new employee, someone from our nonprofit, Jabian Cares, will spend an hour with them and be there as a colleague that can support them. Managers and leaders up and down work closely to mentor and introduce folks to opportunities.
  2. Share stories: We love to share stories. Educational series of Lunch & Learns on everything about nonprofits help to bring down barriers and monthly Town Halls allow us to share and celebrate employees’ success. We have a virtual ‘ring the bell’, that can be for many things: a new baby or money raised for a charity or big leadership milestone.
  3. Acknowledge great efforts: We have a term where we swapped the “G” in gratitude for our Jabian initial “J” and we open meetings with a few minutes of “Jratitudes” where people talk about teammates and things they’re grateful for. It’s not unusual for folks to thank colleagues for helping them out on a board challenge.
  4. Find and nurture the right people: You can create culture, but you have to have the right people. If you hire people who don’t fit into this culture, it’s just not going to work. We spend a lot of time on how we interview, recruit and hire with this idea because they have to want it; it can’t be dictated.

And what’s your role, as the leader, in creating culture?

What I tell other executives is it has to be top down, part of the entire business culture. This isn’t a check box exercise; that’s a point of failure.

Others will do what you do. Don’t dictate it on them but invite them. Reward them, and not only in financial terms, but recognize folks who are making a difference in their community. That’s when it becomes culture. Support them with mentoring, helping them get connections, getting folks out there.

Nothing here is grandiose; it’s actually simple. The hard part is just doing it.

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